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Trevor Forbes has been a central figure in one of the most impressive eras in Princeton football. He started on the perfect 2018 team. He starts on a defense that, through two games, has been perfect this season.


But he knows imperfection as well. What he learned from it has impacted how Princeton plays today, and possibly how it will play after Forbes’ brilliant career finally closes.


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A Princeton legacy was the furthest thing from Trevor Forbes’ mind 7-8 years ago. He was an all-city honoree and National Football Foundation Award honoree while being a two-year captain at White Station High School in Memphis, Tennessee.


When you think about hotbeds of football talent, maybe Tennessee isn’t the first state that comes to mind (though both 2013 Ivy League Player of the Year Quinn Epperly and current starting quarterback Cole Smith come from the Volunteer State). And when you think Memphis, football definitely isn’t the first sport that comes to mind.


“Most people think basketball when they think of Memphis,” Forbes said. “Other areas of Tennessee are based on the traditional big offensive line, big defensive line style of football. Memphis produces great speed, skill position players. I’ve played with several NFL players. There is so much talent coming out of the city. I’m very proud to come from Memphis.”


Naturally, Forbes dreamed of playing in the SEC, or another Power Five school, where football was king. Princeton started recruiting him early, and Forbes developed an important relationship with the coaches, especially area coordinator Mike Mendenhall, but he still wasn’t seriously considering it until he made his official visit during the Tigers’ 2016 Ivy League Championship season.


“I was going off what I inferred, and I assumed Princeton wasn’t for me,” he said. “When I came up, I knew this was where I could thrive. It was clear the guys really cared about football. It mattered to them. I wanted to be challenged, I wanted to have to earn my position.”


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Forbes’ athletic foundation and aptitude for the game helped him earn his spot much quicker than most. He was the starting nickel when Princeton opened its 2017 season, and he was on the field when the Tigers posted a stunning 52-17 victory at Harvard during a nationally televised Friday night showdown.


It seemed like that night might start a march towards a second straight Ivy League title. Instead, it started a path towards teaching Forbes an important lesson in leadership.


All-America defensive lineman Kurt Holuba tore his ACL in that Harvard game, the first of a ridiculous slew of injuries that decimated that side of the ball over a disastrous three weeks. Maybe the injuries themselves were too much to overcome (Princeton allowed 127 points in November 2017 alone, and it allowed 130 in the ENTIRE 2018 season), but Forbes — who would earn the Harland “Pink” Baker ’22 Award as the Top Defensive Freshman that season — learned something through that experience that he carries with him.


“We had great leadership on that team, but when Kurt went down with the ACL and other injuries happened, our confidence waned,” he said. “We weren’t able to instill confidence in each other. We were forced to grow up through that leadership. Regardless of what happens, we know that we need to have pride and believe in ourselves and each other. It really showed itself when Kurt went down in the [2018] preseason. We didn’t blink when it happened.”


They didn’t blink, and they didn’t lose.


Forbes recorded 15 tackles and an interception in his second straight season as the starting nickelback, and he helped Princeton rank fourth in the FCS in scoring defense. The Tigers won the Ivy League championship in dominant fashion, thanks in large part to a defensive-powered 14-9 home win over Dartmouth in a battle of Top-20 teams. It was the same Big Green program that put up 50+ on Forbes and teammates one year earlier.


New mindset, new team, new result.


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Many of the leaders that inspired Forbes’ development graduated after that 2018 title, and Forbes was now a rising upperclassman with two years of starting experience under his belt. He didn’t need the captain’s title to be viewed as a leader; some players just do it naturally.


“We have had some exceptional leaders in my 12 years as a coach and four as a player here at Princeton,” head coach Bob Surace said. “Trevor is in the rare air of the best leaders I’ve been around. A four-year starter and terrific communicator who is the voice of our defense, he has the respect of everyone in our program.”


Forbes was a leader during the eight-win 2019 season, but his most important leadership would come months later, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced everybody into new, uncomfortable situations. Calling it a “really scary time,” Forbes appreciated about the value of reaching out and connecting with his football brothers. You never knew who needed to talk — at times it was you, at times it was someone else, but everybody needed to rely on each other.


Similar to the football field, Forbes knew his team had the potential to raise each other up — and this time, the stakes were much greater than Saturday victories. He wasn’t even sure he would get another chance to play, but true leadership appears when the stakes aren’t even apparent to you.


  • • •


As the 2021 Lehigh and Stetson offenses can attest, Forbes was given another chance to play. A senior captain, Forbes has helped Princeton record back-to-back shutouts as a starting safety. Now officially one of the senior co-captains in the program, Forbes knows how strong leadership can translate into a championship journey.


“I watched the way leadership works,” he said. “How you handle things, how you conduct yourself, it was instilled in me. I’m an observant person, and I wanted to model that leadership. I try to know when is it time for choice words, when is it time for comforting words.”


While he sounds like a young man in total control — Forbes is a sociology major who has a job lined up next year at OnPrem with Tiger great Frank Leal ’90 — even he got the opening-day jitters after 20 months away from gameday.


“There is something about the start of every season, there are always some jitters, but I just remember being on that [Lehigh] sideline feeling like I needed to hit somebody,” he said. “When you play this game every year, you can take it for granted. When it’s taken from you, and you don’t know whether you’ll get the chance to do it one more time, you really appreciate it. I find myself in the middle of a Tuesday practice, and I’m genuinely enjoying it.”


He would love nothing more than to enjoy his final Ivy League opener this coming Saturday, a 1 pm home start against Columbia (TV: NBC Sports Philadelphia, SNY, NBC Sports California, NBC Sports Chicago, ESPN+). His remaining eight games in Orange and Black feature seven Ivy matchups and a road game at Monmouth, an FCS Top-20 program. Forbes will be called on to lead Princeton both on and off the field, and to hopefully provide a model of leadership that benefits the Tigers in both the present and future seasons.


That’s how a program wins, and a culture grows.




june, 2023